Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Time for colleges to dump football?

With the big controversy over Jim Tressel and his performance at Ohio State University, and the behavior of his football players at the college, it’s time for colleges to consider what might be seen as unthinkable: Eliminating football.

There are plenty of other sports that can bring the name of a college forward. Granted, football is a marquee sport, like basketball, but when a team becomes a liability and starts to hurt a college’s reputation, something clearly has to be done.

In recent research, I found that the biggest reason colleges gave for eliminating football from their sports program was money. For example, Hofstra University on Long Island ended its Division II-A football program in the late 2000s for that reason. I’ve read of other colleges, also mostly in the low, non-scholarship divisions, that decided football was a non-starter.

It might seem I’m picking on football because I’m not suggesting that basketball be eliminated. There are plenty of dirty basketball programs, but the staggering size of the football program at many Division I colleges makes the other programs look like rounding errors on a balance sheet. The National Football League and the National Basketball Association both use the colleges as their “minor leagues,” though there is NFL-Europe and the NBA’s development league that are kind of minor leagues. Still, the major focus is on the college teams and they are the main pathways to the pros. The development leagues seem to be for injured and washed-up players whose best days – if they ever had best days – are behind them.

In baseball, players are signed out of college but often end up in a team’s farm system, not in the major leagues – unless the player has absolutely awesome talent.

Unless the NFL is ready to pony up cash to keep the colleges’ football programs going, I am sure that in the current economic climate, a lot of colleges are going to decide to end football.

I was somewhat present at the creation of Florida Atlantic University’s football program. Near the end of my time as a student there in the mid-1990s, there was much talk about the “need” for a program, and the old saw that “real colleges do football” was thrown around by the president of the college. I could point to plenty of “real” colleges that did not have football, but the president was insistent that football could do plenty for FAU.

The cost estimates were staggering, though, and naturally the local pro football team wasn’t about to pay more to help out. When FAU finally got a college football team, it was in Division III, with dreams of moving up, and in its first game, nearly half the team was ruled academically ineligible.

Anyone who criticized the college for deciding that it needed to be a “real” college and have a football team was deemed an obstructor of the holy goal. Then-president Anthony Catanese was determined to have a team, it was said, so he could then build a stadium and strong-arm donors in the luxury box as FAU played Notre Dame.

Well, right after FAU got the team, Catanese split for the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, and his departure was marred by the infamous red Corvette controversy, in which an assistant in the college’s foundation managed to purchase a Corvette for him through donations to the foundation. It’s a long, boring story.

In any case, FAU had a football team and the head of the search committee for the head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, managed to find himself to be the coach. The leader of one of the dirtiest football programs ever, at the University of Miami, became the head of the newest program.

FAU is close to having its stadium and has had the usual array of issues with its program, though nothing on the level of Ohio State.

But as noted in a recent article in The New York Times, colleges and universities are adept at gaming the system and cheating. A piece on Title IX noted that in an effort to inflate the number of women athletes, some women are counted two or three times if they are on one team, and men who practice with the women’s teams are counted as women even though they don’t play.

The lesson for all of us is that if there is a way to cheat, American college programs and athletic staffers will find a way to cheat, even if they don’t get away with it and are severely punished for doing so.

Years ago, I read about one college whose leader finally had had enough. The teams weren’t competitive with other colleges and the pressure to win was enormous, so the president ended sports and used the money to create intramural sports at the college: men’s and women’s softball, soccer, flag football, etc. The result was that participation in sports went up, the pressure to spend more and more to win was eliminated and the college saved a lot of money – and its reputation.

This should happen at public colleges, and even in the K-12 system. It will save taxpayer money and provide sports experiences to a wider variety of students. Private leagues could be started for those who wish to play more competitively in football and basketball, and the professional sports teams could be persuaded or forced to fund them as their minor leagues.

The current system is clearly not working and easily corrupted. That Tressel continued for so long in his lying, deceitful and corrupt ways is a clear sign that college sports is irretrievably broken. If the rules cease to matter, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?

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June 5, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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